For a film that takes place in the early 90’s, Super Dark Times feels very of the moment. Perhaps it’s because Stranger Things seems to have galvanized a certain kind of nostalgia for the youth culture of yesterday, or maybe it’s simply that a new generation of filmmakers wishes to capitalize on plotlines that necessitate an absence of cellphones. Super Dark Times has both of those things, but whereas it succeeds remarkably in capturing a specific time and place, the pieces of its story don’t ever fit together as seamlessly as they should.
The feature debut for both its director Kevin Phillips and screenwriting duo Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, Super Dark Times feels a bit like Stand by Me shot through the filter of a modern indie thriller. Or maybe vice-a-versa. The film takes place in the New York suburbs in 1995 where the quiet and sensitive Zach (Owen Campbell) and his best friend, the mousy but precocious Josh (Chalie Tahan) waste away their afternoons riding bikes, playing video games, and fantasizing about girls – one girl named Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino) in particular has caught both their eyes. One afternoon, bored and looking for mischief, Zach and Josh, along with two other boys Daryl (Max Talisman) and Charlie (Sawyer Barth) take Josh’s brother’s samurai sword out for a spin. Fueled by a little marijuana and a lot testosterone, the boys engage in some horseplay with deadly consequences for Daryl.
In a moment of panic, Zach, Josh, and Charlie decide to hide the body, ditch the sword, and never speak of it again. This proves easier said than done for Zach, whose guilt begins to swallow him, complicating a poorly timed budding romance with Allison. Guilt gives way to paranoia as Zach begins to notice that Josh isn’t acting quite right.
When you boil it down, Super Dark Times is a very standard ‘friends torn apart by a secret’ story. The screenplay by Collins and Piotrowski is successful at building tension, but has difficulty delivering the necessary plot points to push the film towards the explosive ending it wants. This leaves the film with a problematic third act that feels jarring and unearned. These deficiencies are buoyed by two excellent performances by the film’s young stars, Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan, who aptly capture the emotionally confused milieu of high school.
Kevin Phillips imbues the film with a genuine sense of time and place. Deft enough not to bludgeon the audience with 90s memorabilia, Phillips gives just enough temporal cues to capture the suburban zeitgeist of the 1990s. A walkman here, a VHS player there, a sustained preoccupation with people’s phone numbers and novelty phones. Cinematographer Eli Born captures the Hudson Valley in a perpetual twilight haze. Its actually one of the few films shot digitally that largely succeeds in looking like it was shot on film, complimenting the 90s look of the mise-en-scene. Even when things get grisly, it’s never a bad film to look at.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
It’s disappointing watching a film that gets so much right fail to stick the landing. Likely a draft or two away from being completely polished, the script by Collins and Piotrowski does a fantastic job establishing its characters, but can’t quite chart their descent into darkness, leaving us with an ending that is shocking, not so much inn a satisfying and visceral way, but more or an ‘I think I missed something here’ way. Still, there’s a lot to be respected here. Phillips has a great tense of style and place and even if the story’s structure is shakier than it should be, few debuts manage the style and panache of Super Dark Times.
Super Dark Times is part of the Midnight program at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.